October 18, 2011, 10:44 p.m.
The fences had been left unsecured at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, and the animals’ cages were open, police said. They wouldn’t say what animals escaped but said the preserve had lions, wolves, tigers, giraffes, camels and bears. Bears and wolves were among 25 animals that were shot and killed, police said, and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.
“These are wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa,” Sheriff Matt Lutz warned at a news conference.
He called the escaped animals “mature, very big, aggressive,” but said a caretaker told authorities the preserve’s 48 animals had been fed on Monday. Police were patrolling the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars, not on foot, he said, and were concerned that big cats and bears could be hiding.
“This is a bad situation,” Lutz said. “It’s been a situation for a long time.”
Lutz said his office started getting phone calls about 5:30 p.m. that wild animals were loose just west of town on a road that runs under Interstate 70.
He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the animal farm, where they found the farm’s owner, Terry Thompson, dead and all the animal cage doors open. He wouldn’t say how Thompson died but said several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot.
Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in cages in his home, but they were still in their cages, Lutz said.
The deputies, who saw many animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them. There had been no reports of injuries among the public.
Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals. The sheriff said caretakers might put food in the animals’ cages to try to lure them back.
Lutz said people should stay indoors and he might ask schools to close Wednesday. At least four area school districts canceled classes.
Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public.
“Any kind of cat species or bear species is what we are concerned about,” he said. “We don’t know how much of a head start these animals have on us.”
A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which usually handles native wildlife, such as deer, said state Division of Wildlife officers were helping the sheriff’s office deal with the situation in Zanesville, a city of about 25,000 in the east-central part of the state.
“This is, I would say, unique,” spokeswoman Laura Jones said